The verdict is in. The Rutgers football team has improved from opening day, but still has more than a ways to go. At least they weren't blown out this time, and arguably were far more competitive than they had any reasonable right to be.
The Pittsburgh game was not lost on Mohamed Sanu's last fumble. It was lost in the first quarter, when Joe Lefeged accidentally took a knee at the one yard line, and Tom Savage threw an ugly looking interception on the next series. Football is sequential and cumulative; what happens in the first quarter has an impact in the fourth. The Lefeged miscue severely limited the available play calls by putting Rutgers in awful field position, practically guaranteeing the subsequent three and out. Without those mistakes, Rutgers could have built a little momentum, and maybe even tried to get their running game going. As such, not only did they fail to have that opportunity, but Pitt responded by going on methodical, clock killing drives which severely tired out the Rutgers defense.
I hate our mentality and playcalling on offense in all facets. Yes, personnel severely limits the available options, which is probably just as much of a factor as having two offensive coordinators. However, think back to the "Moneyball" revolution in baseball a few years back. It had a lot to do with market inefficiencies in constructing roster, but there was also a fundamental paradigm shift in strategy. I.e., the way to win at baseball is not make outs. The game had no time limit, as anyone who's watched a Yankees/Red Sox series can attest to affirmatively. Theoretically, the game can last indefinitely.
To win at football, you have to keep drives alive. The goal is to keep making first downs, and eventually get into the end zone. Your first and second downs should usually be set up to put the offense into a manageable situation on third down. That being said, I cannot for the life of me understand the purpose of the following two scenarios. There is absolutely no justification for ever having Jabu Lovelace throw a pass. The defense sells out for his option package? Too bad. He has no absolutely no accuracy on his passes whatsoever. It's befuddling why Rutgers continues to give away free downs with this ludicrous novelty.
Furthermore, there is an even more pressing issue which dates back to last season. On third and short, why can't the offense just settle for a first down? Why, why call a low-percentage bomb down field? Especially when there's a freshman quarterback under center who hasn't had much time to get in synch with his receivers. The really scary worry for me is that the propensity to continually go for the home run instead of just checking down and taking the easy first down continues to haunt the offense. That's how they got out of sync early last season. I don't know whather the fault lies with the quarterback or with the offensive coordinator(s), but if it's the latter, then that's a pressing concern.
Watching Pitt's offense operate on the night, I couldn't help but be green with envy. They're the Rutgers of a few years back, having no need for trickery. The Panthers are a meat and potatoes team that beats you in the trenches with superior personnel and execution. Another sincere worry is that the Rutgers offense has been relying so much on smoke and mirrors because the coaching staff doesn't have confidence in anything else. Games are usually won in the trenches.
And yes, that means it might just be time for the offensive line coach Kyle Flood to start facing some scrutiny. I understand that Anthony Davis is the most talented player on the line, if not the team. He did his job on the night, shutting down Greg Romeus for the most part. What's not acceptable is that the rest of the line doesn't even look good enough to start. It's expected that the line's underclassmen will make their share of mistakes, but there's no excuse for Blaze and Haslam to look completely overmatched every single week as senior starters. None.
Looking for an upside on the night, all you have to do is take a glance at the visitors' bench. Dave Wannstedt has had his ups and downs, but he brought a vision of recruiting superior talent to Pittsburgh. Those players, now with the requisite seasoning, came through in the end. Comparatively, Rutgers is a young team. Watching the recent success of Pitt does portend well for the future, if the heralded 2009 recruiting class can come even close to living up to expectations.
Tom Savage's performance on the night was a mixed bag. I don't think Bill Stull looked all that good, but unlike Natale, he at least gives Pitt a chance to win. In time, Savage could be a quarterback capable of taking the team on his back and willing them to victory, but it's not going to happen as a true freshman. Ideally, he'd still be seeing spot duty and progressing at a more relaxed place. Savage took a disturbing amount of hits in the game. He did show flashes, but take any performance out of the Shotgun with a grain of salt. The coaching staff is protecting him. Understandably so, after that awful interception. He has all the tools, but the jury is still out, and will be for some time. Tom still has timing issues, and needs to show better touch on his passes.
I'm not going to kill Joe Martinek for running for 21 carries on nine yards. Did you see the game? Dude had nowhere to run, and didn't get enough touches to get into a rhythm. It helps if the defense respects the pass enough to relent a little bit. I'm not surprised that Brooks didn't see the field, as he's a bad matchup against Pitt's defensive line. Martinek's line will increase the call for Rocket Williams to see the field. He may very well deserve such, and may be a better fit to play behind our terrible run blocking, but Martinek should not be faulted on his own merits. This one's absolutely on the line. I didn't see much of Corcoran at all with Rutgers in Shotgun so much. When they start using more I-formation, he absolutely needs to be more involved with the offense as a receiver. Rutgers will take some heat for not getting Lewis (although they shouldn't really, as he's from upstate NY), but we still don't quite know what Williams can do. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
Sanu and Tim Brown were respectable. Obviously, Sanu had the late fumble, and seemed to drop what should have been a sure catch earlier. Brown's drop in the fourth quarter was on a very difficult catch. Sanu did show a little in option package though. He might have been more successful because of the novelty factor, but he's bigger than Jabu, and probably more explosive too. One big, big positive on the night was the re-emergence of tight end Shamar Graves from the dog house. I hope to see him more involved going forward.
I thought the defense played relatively well, considering that Pitt is a good team, with good personnel. They understandably wore down from Pitt pounding the football for three quarters. The bottom line is that a Dion Lewis is going to get his yards. He looked like Westbrook or Tiki Barber tonight, mixing in his big runs with, honestly, a lot of negative plays. Up front, the freshman Vallone showed some ability inside.
If any unit was shaky, it was the pass coverage. They gave up so many third and long passes that I was having bad flashbacks to last season. Jonathan Baldwin had his requisite freak play in the fourth quarter, but his quiet numbers on the night were mostly a function of the pass rush up front (which was good, despite not registering many sacks), and Pitt's determination to run the football. The defense would have looked far better if the offense had shown up in force when it came to time of possesion and field position.
Based on total yardage and time of possession, Rutgers was lucky to have even had a chance to tie on the final drive. Pitt flat out dominated for most of the game. They were the better team, no questions asked. However, if Rutgers does come back to tie it, Dave Wannstedt would be eviscerated this morning. The Panthers took a lot of dumb penalties on the night. Their coaching staff invited a ton of criticism by playing for the field goal on their last possession (which was missed, the second of the night), and then turning around and playing prevent on the final series. Wannstedt isn't much of a blitzer in general, but the fact that a Panther DB ended up stripping the ball from Sanu doesn't vindicate the strategy. The Rutgers offense was driving, and connected on several key conversions. Pittsbugh almost gave the game away.
Teddy Dellaganna had a couple of nice punts on the night. Following a gorgeous Khaseem Greene sack on a delayed bltiz (where he seemed to "hide" behind another defender, before waiting for the opportune time to charge in), Rutgers blocked another Pitt punt. If only they had been able to capitalize on the miscue.
Way too many empty seats on the night, especially from premo seats that I assume are snapped up by big PP donors. It was a cold night, but not the blizzard that had been expected earlier in the week. Did people not show up because they had feared the worst? It's no fun playing late on a Friday night, but it's important to drum up a big crowd on multiple fronts.
Welp, at least we can put any nonsense about a 4-0 streak or a supposed psychological advantage to bed. Greg Schiano may have lost on the night, but he was absolutely right about having the need for a short memory in these contests. For every time it actually motivates a team to victory, I'd bet that it just as often forces them into pressing and mistakes. Each game is a new opportunity. Can't be carrying around years of baggage when the Mountaineers come to town in December.
Rutgers, the Devils, AND the Yankees were all playing on at the same time? Was this a conspiracy to make sure absolutely no one watched the Governor's debate? Not to mention Cory Booker on Conan.
For one final thought, the check-with-me's have to go. They completely disrupt the flow of the game, killing any momentum when Rutgers has any success on offense. That's not even the worst part. Remember Tony Romo's epic meltdown (heh, I might have to be a bit more specific with that description) against Washington a few years back? He kept reading the defense, and then looking towards the sidelines. What the Skins would then do would be to call an audible, completely defeating the purpose of the exercise at best. These are an expired game clock waiting to happen, and I'm worried that a crafty defender will tease Savage into a bad interception at some point.
Obviously, Rutgers is firmly out of the Big East title race with this loss. It's time to resign yourself to the fact that it's not our year for that, which is a bitter pill to swallow. Rutgers fans have been waiting years, and are beyond impatient at this point for a top bowl game. You look at Savage, at Sanu, and other underclassmen, and can't help and be optimistic for the future, but there remain too many pressing concerns at the moment. Having to work out the kinks on the fly means that 2009 is, for all intents and purposes, a rebuilding year. 2008 should have been the season to win the conference, and in all honesty they probably do if they had a second crack at it. Rutgers followed 2006 with a mediocre conference record the next year, and looks to be on that same path again. Fans can only console themselves at the moment with the possibility of a strong second half portending another bounce back in 2010.
It's nice that the offense started to show some life in the second half, but not so great that they faltered in the first (reminiscent of last year's Cincy game). The team will have an opportunity to work out some kinks next week at Army, and then it's on to two pure tossups in UConn and USF (who I honestly haven't been all that much impressed with to this point). It's still more than possible to salvage a respectable season this year, but it won't be a cakewalk.
All in all, I'm not too upset. The opener is a game that gets your goat. This was merely the better team winning. Rutgers did not embarrass themselves by any means. Rivals this morning is a cesspool. That's specifically why I stopped posting, and started blogging.
Rutgers can certainly beat Army, Syracuse, Louisville, and maybe another game or two with how they played tonight, but that won't be enough. Not unless the offensive line suddenly wakes up as they did halfway through 2008. There's quite a bit I don't care for at the moment, but I understand, mostly, the reasoning behind the strategies. Can't go for it on the 4th and one in the third quarter when the offensive line is getting absolutely no push. There are no better alternatives, and that is a disturbing thought that I'll leave you with for the time being.